Getting the Most from Your Stretching Routine

Warming up, cooling down and stretching. These are essential parts of work-out sessions that can so often be overlooked. Sure, these activities may add a few minutes to your exercise routine, but they also might help you stay healthier. Add a warm-up and cool-down to your current exercise regimen and see the difference.

 Activating the Right Muscles

What happens to your body when you begin to flush your muscles with blood? A smart warm-up turns all the right muscles ON. The purpose of these activities is to prepare the body, especially the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, for the conditioning or stimulus phase of the exercise session.

One of the main benefits associated with warming-up is the fact that it helps to improve circulation of blood within the body. As more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to cells in your muscles, this makes the muscles more efficient, allowing them to work longer and harder before they begin to fatigue. Another great reason to warm up before training is that warming up actually helps to improve muscle elasticity. A solid warm-up opens up your joints, especially those within the hips, spine, feet and ankles.

Warming up also prevents injury. Think of the muscle fibres in your body as a piece of string. If the string is pulled tight, it is far easier to rip and tear. If it is loose, it’s more difficult to tear as there is much more give. Warming up basically ensures your muscles are nice and loose rather than tense and uptight, making a muscle pull or tear far less likely.

Finally, another great reason to warm up before working out is the fact that a simple warm-up will last no longer than 5–10 minutes maximum, and only requires you to perform the most basic of stretches and exercises. After your warm-up you will find yourself far less tense and far more energised. Enjoy your improved performance during work-out, and after the session you will definitely return to the day refreshed and relaxed.

Stretch It Out

Cool-down routine is warm-up routine done in reverse, obviously. Warm-ups and cool-downs generally involve doing your activity at a slower pace and reduced intensity. Both sessions are equally important. After a gruelling work-out, it is recommended to spend 5–10 minutes in a cool-down stage. The length of the cool-down depends on a number of factors, including the type of activity, the intensity of those activities, your current fitness level, personal health, and fitness goals.

During the cool-down your heart rate, body temperature and respiration are gradually returned to normal. You should stretch all major muscle groups for at least 10-30 seconds. Stretching movements align the joints leading to better balance and coordination, and are thought to be beneficial for reducing injury risk, as well. Active cool-down also helps remove the accumulated lactate from the blood and prevent post-exercise muscle soreness. Thus, you should never attempt to skip this stage.

Proper Techniques

Here are some simple stretching exercises that put the above considerations into practice in a way that would be suitable following almost any work-out.

Quadriceps stretch: Your quadriceps muscle runs along the front of your thigh. To stretch your quadriceps muscles, stand near a wall for support. Grasp your ankle and gently pull your heel up and back until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. Tighten your stomach muscles to prevent your stomach from sagging outward, and keep your knees close together. Hold for about 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Hamstring stretch: Your hamstring muscle runs along the back of your upper leg. To stretch your hamstring muscles, lie on the floor near the outer corner of a wall. Raise your left leg and rest your left heel against the wall. Keep your left knee slightly bent. Gently straighten your left leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your left thigh. Hold for about 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Knee-to-chest stretch: Lie on your back on a firm surface with the backs of your heels flat on the floor. Gently pull one knee up to your chest until you feel a stretch in your lower back. Bring the knee as close to your chest as comfortably possible. Keep the opposite leg relaxed in a comfortable position, either with your knee bent or with your leg extended. Hold for about 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Shoulder stretch: To keep your shoulders flexible, bring your left arm across your body and hold it with your right arm, either above or below the elbow. Hold for about 30 seconds. Switch arms and repeat.

Neck stretch: To do this stretch, bend your head forward and slightly to the right. With your right hand, gently pull your head downward. You will feel a nice, easy stretch along the left side of your neck. Hold for about 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.

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